From Legislature

Why Georgia Beer Laws Need Reform

This is going to be a fight in the legislature and it should be. Lobbyists and beer wholesalers, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy off legislators, have stymied reforms that all but three states have.

The only kickstarter program I have ever funded was the Synek Beer system. Take a look at this:

The system allows you to go to a brewer or craft beer store, fill a type of bio-safe plastic bladder with beer on tap, and it keeps fresh for THIRTY DAYS! So if you are having a party, you can get it filled and serve your friends beer on tap of your choice.

But it is hard to do in Georgia. The bladder is 128 ounces, or two growlers worth.

In Georgia, if you took this to your local brewery, it would be illegal to fill up. It would also, under revenue rulings in Georgia, be illegal for the brewery to tell you the name of a store where you could fill up.

The entire system of beer laws in Georgia is designed to protect incumbent campaign contributions from wholesaler lobbyists. It breeds corruption and stifles innovation.

The Synek System is revolutionary. But there are few places around Georgia to be able to take advantage of it. Meanwhile, states bordering us are thriving.

This should be a very public policy fight in the legislature in 2016. Breweries should be able to sell 128 ounces on premises. It promotes their product without cutting into store purchases. The wholesalers entire argument is that they cannot let a single law change for fear that long term something will happen to them.

I had a law professor who frequently said, “It is only a slippery slope if you slide down it.” We do not have to slide down the slippery slope in letting breweries sell 128oz of beer on premise. The wholesalers, out of fear, are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

It is time for a change and the overreaction of the Department of Revenue at the behest of the wholesale lobby should show the legislature they need to force that change now.

Free the beer in Georgia.

Speaker Ralston Discusses the Upcoming Legislative Session

In a wide ranging discussion with members of the Capitol Hill press corps, House Speaker David Ralston covered several issues that are expected to come up during the 2016 legislative session, which begins on Monday. Among the topics the Speaker addressed were medical marijuana legislation, MARTA legislation, and funding for the Hope scholarship.

Speaker David Ralston takes questions from the media in advance of the legislative session.
Speaker David Ralston takes questions from the media in advance of the legislative session.
The Speaker expressed his disappointment with President Obama’s recent executive actions to expand the scope of background checks in an effort to reduce gun violence. He said that the president had tried to make a terror attack into a gun issue. “I am firmly committed to our Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” the Speaker said. “We blame a lot of things on guns in our society. I think we’re wrong to do that, and as long as I’m in this position, we’re going to continue to protect the rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment, and anything that will infringe on that will have a tough time getting past my office.”

On other issues, Speaker Ralston expressed his support for Rep. Allen Peake’s new bill that would expand the number of diseases that could be treated, and said that at some point, the decision over whether to treat a patient using medical marijuana should be made by medical professionals. On whether the state should permit casinos and / or horse racing as a method of raising funds for the Hope Scholarship, the Speaker said that ultimately, whether to allow gambling would be up to the people. But, figuring out the details of implementation could be more difficult. It’s also important, the Speaker said, to examine ways to reduce tuition and fee increases within the university system so as not to put such a burden on the scholarship program. Read more

Allen Peake Releases Details of Proposed Medical Marijuana Legislation

State Rep. Allen Peake of Macon will file legislation that both expands the list of conditions under which patients can obtain medical marijuana and permits for the first time the cultivation of the plant for medical purposes in the state of Georgia. Details of the legislator’s plans were first reported by Atlanta’s 11 Alive. From their story:

In the new legislation, Peake aims to add Alzheimer’s, Epidermolysis Bullosa, Aids, Tourette’s syndrome, and intractable pain. Intractable pain will be the most controversial because it will allow the greatest number of patients to have access to cannabis.Currently, there are 465 patients on the medical marijuana registry in Georgia.

As part of the legislation, Peake is also pushing for a limited number of licensed growers to provide the state’s patients with medical cannabis. Peake foresees anywhere from two to six licenses being issued depending on a number of qualifying factors.

Following the passage of H.B. 1 during the 2015 session, Peake led a study committee over the summer that looked into expanding medical marijuana usage in the Peach State. That committee ended up making no recommendations. Governor Deal has indicated he is not in favor of in-state cultivation of medical marijuana.

On Tuesday, Peake released a video in support of his proposed legislation.

Parental Rights Legislation Prefiled for 2016 Legislative Session

A bill that could be the 2016 legislative session’s most significant pro life effort was prefiled earlier this month by Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek. House Bill 713 provides for terminating the parental rights of a father of a child conceived through rape or sex trafficking. The bill also provides for a loss of parental rights for any parent who causes a child to be conceived through rape, child molestation, sexual assault, incest, or sex trafficking.

Rep. Raffensperger says the new law is needed because in many cases, the rapist threatens to exercise his parental rights as leverage to prevent his victim from filing charges or testifying against him. The story of one woman who was a victim of this situation inspired Raffensperger to author the bill:

“I became aware of this injustice this summer when I was first told of the ordeal of Ms. Shauna Prewitt. Ms. Prewitt was raped while in university, and a child was conceived and brought to full term. Ms. Prewitt reluctantly agreed not to testify against her rapist perpetrator as part of a settlement to ensure that he would not be part of her life and the life of her child. This injustice to Ms. Prewitt energized her to study law, and she now fights for legal protections for women and children that are victims of rape.”

The bill will be formally introduced when the legislative session starts on January 11th. Rep. Raffensperger expects the bill will be broadly supported in both the House and Senate.

Advice From A Father To His Newly-Minted Senator Son

Former State Representative and Current Regent Larry Walker penned a piece giving fatherly advice to his son and his new state senator, Senator Larry Walker III (R-Perry), in the Macon Telegraph.  Here are a few tidbits that, honestly, can be applied to our own lives:

4. BE LIKABLE: Be friendly. Smile. Be courteous. This applies to your constituents and your fellow legislators (on both sides of the aisle). Don’t think you are too important, even though the office you hold might be. Use words like “please,” “I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “that’s a good idea,” etc.

7. BE WILLING TO COMPROMISE WHEN COMPROMISE IS IN ORDER: Politics is the art of compromise — or, at least it used to be. Listen to the other person’s point of view. Try to reach consensus. Don’t compromise your principles, but sometimes you ultimately get what you want by initially starting with something less or different than you preferred.

10. KNOW WHEN TO QUIT: You might say “this is strange advice to be giving when I am just starting.” But, the time will come, and there will be life after politics. Knowing when to quit is more important than deciding to run.

You can read the whole article over at the Macon Telegraph.  This is sage advice that people in general should take to heart.

I’ll leave this open to the Peach Pundit community:  What constructive advice would you give to the Senator?

Preservation of Hope Scholarship Committees Meet Today

The House and Senate Study Committees on the Preservation of the Hope Scholarship are scheduled to have a joint meeting this morning to wrap up their business before releasing a final report. According to the agenda, the committee will hear overviews of HB 677, which is Rep. Ron Stephens’s bill to authorize casino gambling, and SR 135, which is Sen. Brandon Beach’s bill to authorize parimutuel wagering on horse races.

Other witnesses include Doug Walker, Professor of Economics, College of Charleston, Rep. Stacey Evans, the Rev. Willie Webb of the Foundation Baptist Church, Dr. James G Emshoff, Associate Professor Emeritus (GSU) and Director of Research, EMSTAR Research, Inc., and Rich Baldwin, Managing Director, Global Head of Union Gaming Analytics, Las Vegas.

While some of the Capitol Hill insiders think that the gambling measures have little chance of being approved during the 2016 session, the Faith & Freedom Coalition isn’t taking any chances. The mailer you see below was sent to at least some residents of Sen. Jeff Mullis’s district, asking recipients to contact the senator to tell him to oppose casino gambling.

Saying, “Don’t leave our children’s future to chance. Casinos will destroy Georgia’s families and economy,” the flyer lists crime, bankruptcies, addiction, job losses, financial ruin and less spending on essentials as reasons to be against casinos.

Faith & Freedom Coalition Mailer
Faith & Freedom Coalition Mailer

Georgia State Senate Gets Some New Committee Chairs

Five State Senate committees have new chairmen or vice chairmen, primarily due to the resignations of Ross Tolleson and Ronald Ramsey. The new chairmen were announced on Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Assignments.

Senator Frank Ginn of Danielsville will serve as the new chair of the Natural Resources Committee, raplacing Chairman Tolleson. As a result, Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta will replace Ginn as the chairman of the Economic Development Committee. Beach had been chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, and that chairmanship will be filled by Sen. Bruce Thompson of White.

Sen. Tolleson had been Vice-Chairman of the Rules committee. He will be replaced by Sen. Jack Hill or Reidsville. Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah will replace Ronald Ramsey as chair of the Senate Urban Affairs Committee. With the exception of Jackson who is a Democrat, the other chairmen are Republicans.

Senate leadership weighed in on the changes:

The Georgia State Senate’s top priority is preserving Georgia’s reputation as a leading state for business development, job creation and educational opportunity. I look forward to working directly with Senate leadership in order to find real solutions for Georgia’s most significant and pressing issues,” said Lt. Governor Cagle.

“We are fortunate to have a wealth of talent and experience in the State Senate,” said President Pro Tem David Shafer of Duluth. “I am confident that our new committee chairs and committee members will do great work.”

Bill Exempting State Income Tax on Vets’ Retirement Benefits Expected for 2016 Legislative Session

The Savannah Chamber of Commerce released its list of legislative priorities on Thursday, topped by a request to eliminate the state income tax on the retirement pay of veterans. According to a story in the Savannah Morning News, the exemption would be revenue neutral, paid for by raising the tax on each pack of cigarettes by 28 cents.

House District 166 Rep. Jesse Petrea plans to introduce the bill for the 2016 legislative session.

Petrea called the bill, which will eliminate all state taxes on veterans’ retirement benefits, “the right thing to do.”

“This bill is good for veteran families and good for Georgia businesses and industry,” he said. “We’re all familiar with the issues our businesses face in finding a skilled workforce.

“What better way to alleviate that problem than to incentivize patriotic, disciplined and skilled individuals to stay in Georgia?”

Petrea pointed out that veterans already have that perk in Florida, Alabama and Tennessee.

Other Savannah Chamber priorities for the upcoming session include increasing the amount of funds available for marketing tourism in the Peach State, and providing funding for new facilities at Armstrong University and Savannah State College. The 2016 legislative session will be gaveled in on January 11th, 2016.

A Committee Looks At a Data-Driven Solution to Reducing Welfare Fraud

Trey Harrison of Lexis Nexis testified before the House Welfare Fraud Committee.  Photo: Jon Richards
Trey Harrison of Lexis Nexis testified before the House Welfare Fraud Committee. Photo: Jon Richards
The House Study Committee on Welfare Fraud had its second meeting this morning, and heard from witnesses who talked about how using modern computer data technology can identify cases of fraud in the state’s assistance programs for the needy. Reducing fraud can help the state save money, or in the case of provider fraud, help protect those using a welfare program from being scammed.

The hearing opened with a video of a WSB TV news broadcast showing how healthcare providers who have been disallowed from continued participation in Medicaid because of fraud or other malpractice simply move to a new location, and start business again under a new name, perhaps in a different state. In the past fraud like this has been difficult to detect. Yet, according to Trey Harrison of the data firm Lexis Nexis, the private sector has developed the tools necessary to identify situations like this, including a complete database of healthcare providers in all states that includes information on any sanctions applied, different practice names, and other information that can prevent the problems cited in the news report from occurring.

Saying the stolen identities are a bigger problem than most people realized, comprehensive databases from companies like Lexis Nexis can help identify cases of fraud early in the processs, saving money. While in some cases you have an individual attempting to scam the system, in others an identity is stolen and used to apply for benefits. A comprehensive database can help identify this as well.

A second witness, Andrew Brown of the Foundation for Government Accountability, highlighted a program his organization developed called Stop the Scam. This program is designed to perform periodic checks on people applying for or receiving welfare benefits. According to Brown, around 10% of those receiving benefits are ineligible, or are receiving too much in benefits. He estimated that identifying and stopping this fraud could save between $60 and $115 million annually in Georgia.

These anti-fraud programs were originally developed for use by banks, insurance companies, and other private sector entities, but are just starting to be used by state and local governments to prevent misuse of their programs. Of course, the services provided by these third parties aren’t free. One of the things Committee Chairman David Clark of Buford and the other members will have to determine is whether the expense of trying to fight fraud will be less than the abuse it prevents.

The committee will have a third meeting in November before it presents its findings. If indeed the savings from using third parties to identify fraud is greater than the cost, the savings could be used to fund other needs in government, or to provide more assistance to those who really need it.

Trump Gains First Gold Dome Endorsement

We all know Donald Trump is trying to buy the free world. Yet, despite Donald Trump’s liberal record of supporting abortion; donating to Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid; and endorsing other liberal policies; he has secured an endorsement from an (my) elected official: State Senator Michael Williams (R-Cumming).

First reported by the AJC, Senator Michael Williams confirmed on Facebook he is supporting Trump. It should be noted that his political consultant, Seth Weathers, is heading up Donald Trump’s Georgia team.

Trump Endorsement

My hope is Senator Williams remains the only Gold Dome endorsement of Trump. We’ll see.

No Conclusions Reached At Short Term Rentals Committee Meeting

Jim Sprouse of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association testifies before the House Special Committee on Short Term Rentals
Jim Sprouse of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association testifies before
the House Special Committee on Short Term Rental Providerss
A special House committee tasked with examining the short term rental market dominated by companies such as Airbnb, VRBO, and Homeaway met Tuesday morning, but failed to reach any conclusions about possible regulation, or even a solid conclusion what should be defined as a short term rental that would be subject to regulation. The committee heard from several invited witnesses, including representatives from Airbnb, the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association, and the city of Savannah’s Department of Tourism Management.

The first challenge the committee faced was determining the types of rentals that should be regulated. Examples of short term rentals run the gamut from people in Augusta who rent their houses out for ten days in April for the Masters Tournament, or homeowners in Athens who rent their houses six weekends a year during football season, to traditional Beds and Breakfasts, to non owner-occupied houses that are rented year-round through agencies like Arbnb. While most of the witnesses agreed that a level playing field is needed where everyone follows the same rules, there was some question as to whether the the regulation for someone who rents their home a few weekends a year during football season should be the same as the regulation for someone who makes a living running a bed and breakfast, or someone who make a living renting properties full time through providers like Airbnb.

One concern brought up by several witnesses dealt more with the individuals renting these homes, and the effect rentals have on the neighborhood in which they are located. Committee members heard about a home that was sized to hold four people, yet would have ten or more people during one rental. In Savannah, the Tourism Management department has received complaints ranging from public drunkenness to inappropriate language to urinating in public. Jim Renner, a homeowner from St. Simons Island, made the trip to Atlanta to talk about the destruction of the character of his neighborhood due to one home being the scene for a constant stream of rentals. In his opinion, rentals for wedding parties were worse than the damage caused by rentals the weekend of the annual Georgia Florida game in Jacksonville.

There was a question as to whether regulations of short term rentals should be managed at the state level or the local level. While the city of Savannah developed regulations for short term rentals, the process required fifteen drafts and local customization because of the city’s historic districts that would make its regulations too customized to use elsewhere. John Barbour of the Georgia Association of Realtors pointed out that localities had differing regulations and requirements for things like food and alcohol service that would make statewide regulation difficult. And, he argued, if the state were to produce regulations, who would monitor the properties to ensure compliance with them?

The committee meeting ended with many unanswered questions and no consensus about how it should proceed in its next meeting, which is yet to be scheduled.

Qualifying Set for Two Special Elections

After a summer seemingly filled with special elections, there are two more to go before the end of the year. Voters will go to the polls on November 3rd to elect a new state senator in District 43 to replace Democrat Ronald Ramsey, and to elect a new state representative in District 122 to replace Republican Ben Harbin. Ramsey resigned his seat to become a traffic court judge in DeKalb County, while Harbin left the legislature to take a job with the lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group.

After Governor Deal issued writs of election for the two seats, Secretary of State Brian Kemp set candidate qualifying to run from Monday, Sept. 14th through Wednesday the 16th. Those wishing to qualify may do so at the Elections Division, 802 West Tower of the Sloppy Floyd Building from 9AM to 5 PM on Monday and Tuesday, and from 9 AM until Noon on Wednesday.

The elections are non-partisan. If a runoff election is needed, it will be held on Tuesday, December 1st.

Speaker David Ralston Announces New Committee Assignments

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced that Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville has been named Vice Chairman of the Rules Committee, and announced committee assignments for several newly elected House members.

Rep. Shaw Blackmon of Bonaire, who was elected to replace Larry O’Neal in House District 146, was named to the Economic Development and Tourism, Insurance and Special Rules committees. “The life of every middle Georgian is directly impacted by insurance policy and the economic viability of their state,” said Rep. Blackmon. “I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in these various capacities and look forward to getting right to work.”

Rep. Clay Pirkle was named by Speaker Ralston to the Agriculture, Science and Technology, and State Properties committees. In a statement, the Sycamore Republican said, “I am excited that our district has a voice on these important committees,” said Rep. Pirkle. “I will work hard to be an advocate for our region.”

Rep. Betty Price of Roswell, who was elected to replace the late Harry Geisinger in the 48th District, will be on the Governmental Affairs, Health & Human Services and State Planning & Community Affairs committees. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to serve on three committees that will serve well the citizens of the 48th House District,” said Rep. Price. “These committees could not be more tailor-made for me. As the only physician in the Georgia House, I look forward to working on medical issues. The other committees dovetail nicely with my experience on the Roswell City Council, and are the right places to be addressing the issues such as Homestead Exemption, restoring Milton County, responding to municipal needs, and evaluating election law.”

Rep. Taylor Bennett of Brookhaven was named to a seat on the Judiciary Committee, much like the man he replaced, Mike Jacobs. Bennett will also be on the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight, and Small Business Development committees. “I am very pleased and excited to have been assigned to the Budget and Fiscal Affairs, Judiciary and Small Business Development committees,” said Rep. Bennett. “I look forward to the opportunity to help our government operate more efficiently and responsibly, to ensure that our legal system best serves the interests of our citizens, and to help small businesses start, grow, and thrive. I appreciate being granted these opportunities by Speaker Ralston and I look forward to working closely with my colleagues in the months ahead.”

In addition to his new position as vice chairman of the Rules Committee, Rep. Harrell serves as Vice Chairman of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight and Regulated Industries committees, Secretary of the Ways and Means Committee, as well as a member of the Transportation Committee. “I am thrilled to receive this opportunity to serve the citizens of this state and my colleagues in the General Assembly in this leadership position on the House Rules committee,” said Rep. Harrell. “I am grateful to Speaker Ralston and Chairman Meadows for allowing me to serve in this capacity.”

Note: This post has been updated to include information on Rep. Pirkle.

The Beer Jobs Bill Isn’t Having the Desired Effect

Senate Bill 63, AKA the Beer Jobs Bill was supposed to let microbreweries expand their presence in the Peach State. Yet, two months after the law’s going into effect, nothing much has changed, at least for some Athens area breweries. From the Athens Banner Herald:

Since July 1, breweries, including Terrapin and Creature Comforts, have been allowed to sell up to a six-pack of beer to visitors to with them after going on a tour.

However, most of those visitors didn’t want to buy beer to take home. In fact, they didn’t even know they could, said Carmen Miranda, brewery tour and events manager at Terrapin.

“It’s something that we were so excited for and something that we really pushed, but then we realized that outside of the brewery no one knew about it. It took a little explaining to people that you could buy beer at the brewery now,” Miranda said.

Was Senate Bill 63 oversold as a way to bring beer tourism to Georgia, or did the changes made in committee limit the bill’s effectiveness? Maybe, as envisioned in the ABH story, things will pick up now that UGA is back in session and football season is about to start. If not, should the issue be examined again next year?

A Few Thoughts About the Pastor Protection Act

This weekend, the AJC reported that Speaker Ralston is backing legislation to be sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner concerning marriage solemnization refusals by clergy. The legislation is a response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that brought same-sex marriage to Georgia. In short, the bill is aimed at prohibiting any attempt to force clergy to marry same-sex couples.

The legislation is not legally necessary. The Supreme Court’s recent decision does not undermine the First Amendment right of clergy to not perform marriages inconsistent with their faith. Consider the example of a rabbi who will not marry interfaith couples.  That rabbi has always had the protection of the First Amendment to refuse marrying interfaith couples notwithstanding those couples’ constitutional right to marry civilly. The same principle applies in the context of same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples in Georgia have a constitutional right to a state marriage license, but just like the interfaith couple, have no constitutional right to a religious solemnization ceremony. The law is the same today as it was prior to Obergefell.

That being said, there is nothing new or usual about codifying in statute what is widely known to be constitutionally protected. Each time state legislatures voluntarily enacted same-sex marriage, those marriage equality statutes included a reaffirmation of clergy rights. Here are a few examples:

New York (2011):

“A refusal by a clergyman or minister… to solemnize any marriage…shall not create a civil claim or cause of action.”

Maryland (2012):

“… an official of an order or body authorized by the rules and customs of that order or body to perform a marriage ceremony may not be required to solemnize or officiate any particular marriage or religious rite of any marriage in violation of the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and by the Maryland Constitution and Maryland Declaration of Rights.”

Illinois (2013):

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require any religious denomination or Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group, or any minister, clergy, or officiant acting as a representative of a religious denomination or Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group, to solemnize any marriage.”

This is unlikely the only piece of legislation to be introduced in the General Assembly as a response to the Supreme Court’s constitutionalization of same-sex marriage. However, this is likely the least controversial of what is to come.